Additive Manufacturing…For the Body?


“Additive Manufacturing”, or in simpler sexier terms, 3D PRINTING has been at the forefront of the technology and innovation discussion. Created for recreational uses, the concept of mechanically building components by adding layer over layer has expanded to construction, automotive, consumer goods and even medical applications[1].

Having worked with 3D printers in summer 2014 at the Imperial College Robotics Lab, I experienced the challenges the technology faced at the time. However, blocked extruders (nozzle that deposits molten plastic), malfunctioning printers and system resets are issues from the past, as the technology now faces bigger challenges and its application expands into more complicated sectors.

The fascinating development of bio-printing, pioneered by EnvisionTec, takes center stage in this blog post, as we try to explore the sector’s main challenges and the company’s efforts to propel the technology forward.

For the past 15 years, EnvisionTec has grown and pioneered additive manufacturing, expanding from initial basic 3D printers to covering bio-printers with its Bio-Plotters series. Bio-plotters are 3D printers that create the structure and base / scaffold of an organ then inject the relevant cell mixture to create functioning organs and skin grafts[2].

In addition to hiring, EnvisionTec has adopted an open source policy for its product development to optimize the development of its products[3]. By making product-related documents publicly available, EnvisionTec is calling for increased collaboration from the medical and technical community. Further, EnvisionTec allows the use of 3rd party printing raw material on its products. A smart move in my opinion as it promotes the diffusion of its products in a sector that might be hesitant to switch over to bio-printed products.

But perhaps the biggest stride taken by the company to increase awareness and promote diffusion of its product is creating an online database to track the growing amount of research being done with its bio-printer at universities, hospitals and companies worldwide. Whether it is for criticism or praise, EnvisionTec’s public database carries peer-reviewed papers and acts as reddit of sorts where professionals discuss the different applications, merits and drawbacks of bio-printing[4][5]. Through the database, EnvisionTec is also collecting data to better improve its products and respond to its customer requirements.

In order to maintain their momentum, I believe EnvisionTec should double-down on perfecting the technology behind bio-printing and increase product awareness and, in the long term, focus on further improving the business side of its operations.

While the progress so far has been impressive, there are still many challenges associated with the technology of bio-printing. This is not to be construed as a reflection of poor EnvisionTec performance. The technology is simply very complex. The implication of slow printing speeds are issues companies like EnvisionTec must solve. Given the high quality and accuracy required for the organs being printed, large components may take up to several days to be completed. In the meantime, the bio-ink, i.e. the cell medium injected into the printed organ, has to be maintained in a proper physiological state. This entails strict control of temperature and humidity throughout the printing process[6]. This is just one of the issues, but the point I am trying to convey that a lot of progress is still required on the technical front, and I believe EnvisionTEc should prioritize securing enough capital and investing in efforts to nail down the technology and the science behind it. EnvisionTec is not a publicly listed company, so I was unable to clearly identify how they secure funding, but it is key area in my opinion.

Another area I think they should focus om is increasing acceptance of bio-printing as a viable medical solution. It has been generally adopted by the medical community, but as with all new medical technologies, it will require additional effort to diffuse faster and deeper. Developing a strong sales team to pitch bio-printing to Key Opinion Leaders in the medical community is one potential suggestion.

I also believe they should raise awareness with patients, to make them more accepting of the new technology as a viable alternative.

Along those lines, and because of the massive potential I see for this company, I think EnvisionTec should start building up its business capabilities. Putting in place marketing and sales teams, financial and operating processes and supporting technological systems will be crucial for EnvisionTec to equip itself for the growth that is expected.

To close, 2 key questions persist:

  • From a medical perspective, and given the technical nature required in modeling the components on the 3D printing software, should doctors be expected to do the modeling themselves?
  • From a business perspective, should the company maintain its broad range of 3D printers that cover over 6 different sectors, or should it focus on 1 or 2 sectors and develop superior expertise in them?

(790 words)

[1] Kerns. What’s next for 3D printing? The disruptive technology continues to grow thanks to lower costs and greater accessibility. Machine Design 90

[2] Wade. 3D Bioprinter Creates Human Skin. Engineer Online. 1/24/2017

[3] (EnvisionTec Website)

[4] (EnvisionTec Website)

[5] (EnvisionTec Website)



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Student comments on Additive Manufacturing…For the Body?

  1. Georges, this is a fascinating piece, thanks for sharing. I hadn’t realized that 3D bio-printing was already on the horizon, particularly given that additive manufacturing is still relatively nascent in non-bio industries. You raise some intriguing questions. It seems like 3D bio-printing is an extremely technical field which requires significant medical, engineering and computer science expertise. I believe experts from all these areas are needed to make progress and conduct modeling. Ultimately I think doctors should partner with academia in order to have the necessary know how and resources to turn 3D bio-printing into a reality. I also think that EnvisionTec should start with expertise in one sector rather than stretch themselves too thin with multiple areas, particularly given the capital constraints that the company is facing.

  2. Agreed – Georges, this was really great! I enjoyed hearing that EnvisionTec has embraced open source in order to establish collaboration and further learnings from both the medical and technical communities. I really believe that open source is one of the tenants that allows society to innovate quickly and across disciplines. Not sure where I would be without Wikipedia and on the nerdier tech side, 🙂

    Here are my first takes on your questions:
    1) I do not believe that doctors should be expected to do the modeling themselves. People go through years of schooling and on-the-job work to become proficient in 3D modeling. We have doctors to save lives and provide healthcare! 3D modeling is not their core competency (nor should it be), and they don’t have the time (and I imagine may not have the interest, either) to learn this new school. I would recommend instead that medical researches work together with engineers to produce the models, and bring in doctors and other experts to review the requirements and drawings before printing.

    2) If EnvisionTec has the time, people, and money to continue printing for 6 different sectors – then great! I’d say continue if it makes sense for the business right now.

    However, I imagine as the sector grows, competition will increase. If/when that happens, EnvisionTec would be wise to focus on a few specialties and become experts in that area. So – start broad and build their name in this area, and then specialize in order to secure revenues.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Georges; very interesting and thought-provoking piece. One question that this raises for me is around the ethics of additive manufacturing in this context. What would happen if folks could perpetually update their organs so that they never fail? Could we end up in a world without death?

  4. I agree with the thoughts above that physicians should not be experts in performing three dimensional printing, I view this medical service as a specialist technician’s job within a hospital or care facility, where the technicians produce the biomaterials and the physicians are responsible for surgery and healthcare after delivering the printed organs.
    I am concerned with the long lead times and expensive development costs, particularly with respect to medical applications, which leads me to think they should focus on one or two high impact applications of the software. Great read!

  5. What a great application for 3D printing! Thank you for the interesting read, George!

    This article left me wondering about the ethical implications to the medical / biotechnology community. As we think about “printing” organs and human body parts, where do we draw the line as to what constitutes as “natural” to the human body and reproductive process?

  6. This was an interesting read, Georges, as it shows how EnvisionTec is at the forefront of Bio-printing technology. However, it would be interesting to get a glimpse into the success rate of the printed products being transplanted into the human body. With all the advancements in the medical field, to that day patients are still experiencing rejections and complications when it comes to transplanted organs. How does bio-printing tackle this issue? Is the cell mixture generic, developed by the company, or harvested from the patient? If harvested from the patient, how long of a lead time will it require to print an organ?
    On another front, how would the company react to ethical dilemmas for assigning the limited capacity to the different patients that need the service (first come, first served vs. based on how critical the condition vs. based on the price the patient is willing to pay!)?

  7. Amazing article! 3D printing of organs can truly be a game-changer in the healthcare industry. I wanted to touch upon the capital investment you mention for research and development. I expect that there is already Government funding given, but I would be and advocate of firmly supporting these initiatives from a public policy perspective. 3D printing can help as lead longer, healthier lives and in my opinion one of the most important roles of Governments is creating the right support structure to foster this innovation in healthcare.
    To your question regarding the scope of products to focus on, I would recommend focusing on 1 or 2 given the high costs of the developments and the importance of ‘getting it right’. In addition, and applying the concept of experiential learning, I believe that they could then apply their learnings of their first products to develop the others.

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